Whitfield Lovell’s works present nuanced portrayals of anonymous African-Americans by combining detailed drawings, based on old found photographs, with evocative vintage objects. Lovell, who was born in 1959 in the Bronx, regularly scours flea markets, antique stores and estate sales for his source material. The resulting arrangements suggest the fraught circumstances faced by many African-Americans at different points in U.S. history, while capturing a strong sense of personal dignity and inner strength.
The exhibition “Deep River” includes 21 works made since 2008, culminating in a large, site-specific, eponymous installation. On view are several of Lovell’s tableaux: life-size Conté drawings on salvaged wood that are grouped with various objects. Most of the images depict African-American soldiers from the World Wars. Pago Pago (2008) shows a man in a staff sergeant’s uniform reclining in a bamboo chair. On the floor in front of the two large wooden boards on which he is drawn are four stacks of Bakelite radios, one of which plays Billie Holiday’s “I Cover the Waterfront.” Lovell carefully chooses clues to set a nostalgic scene but does not name his subject. This anonymity gives more weight to the pride and satisfaction emanating from the soldier’s face and posture, as well as to his importance as a model for African-Americans with similar desires for respect and opportunity.
In the same space are drawings from the “Kin” series, each of which is a charcoal portrait on paper with an object mounted on it. The finely rendered images are based on pre-Civil Rights-era photographs. The artist represents every detail of the subjects’ features, down to stray wisps of hair. The items he attaches tantalize the eye through shared formal properties—a coil of rope resembles braided hair; a metal faucet recalls the line of a nose—but offer no definitive context. Kin XXXVII (Ninghe, Ninghe), 2011, shows the face of a clean-shaven black man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. A rusted fire-alarm bell below mimics the shape of his face and the lenses of his glasses. We may wonder if he was a fireman or a teacher, but we soon realize that any extrapolation is misguided; only the man’s humanity is evident.
Lovell’s installation Deep River (2013), which occupies a spacious room, creates a multisensory experience. Fifty-six round wooden foundry molds, which range in diameter from a few inches to several feet, rest on the floor on their edges like wheels. Each disk features a Conté drawing of an African-American man or woman. The disks face an oval mound of mulch that fills the space with a rich musty smell. The song “Deep River,” a traditional spiritual, plays quietly in the background. Close-up shots of the waves of the Tennessee River, a crucial border during the Civil War, are projected on two walls, calling attention to Chattanooga’s precarious position at that time. There is a sense here that the viewer stands among generations of people reflecting on a time in history that did not deliver all it promised.